China’s Vice President Wang Qishan, a close aide to President Xi Jinping and the former enforcer of the president’s anti-corruption campaign, is believed to have played a key role in the recent developments in Hong Kong.

Wang was in the southern province of Guangdong from Aug. 29 to 31. Officially, the vice president was there to make an inspection tour related to the protection of cultural assets.

But few believe that Wang would spend three days looking at calligraphy and paintings when, just across the waters, tensions were rising in Hong Kong.

After all, Wang has demonstrated a knack for bringing crises under control. In the months after the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Wang oversaw the bankruptcy of state owned Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp, the biggest such collapse in China. When the Sars virus broke out in Beijing in 2003, Wang was tapped as mayor to contain it.

The handling of these issues earned him the nickname “fire brigade chief.”

In late August, a message presumably from Beijing spread among the Chinese diaspora. It went like this: The Chinese government will resolve the Hong Kong problem by the Sept. 13 Mid-Autumn Festival, the most important family gathering on the Chinese calendar.

The message began reaching its intended recipients about 10 days after a secretive annual gathering of current Chinese Communist Party leaders and retired elders concluded in the seaside town of Beidaihe, Hebei Province.

From the message, Hong Kongers presumed that the central government wanted to resolve their uprising before Oct. 1, when a ceremony and military parade in Beijing will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

But how, they wondered, did the central government intend to resolve the matter?

One video foreshadowed an ominous response. It showed units of the People’s Armed Police, or PAP, in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. In the video, the special forces were conducting a large-scale anti-demonstration exercise. The footage would go on to air intermittently.

The PAP units, under the command of the Central Military Commission and already right across the border from Hong Kong, appeared to be awaiting a decision from Beijing.

The protests began in early June with a single demand, that an extradition bill be withdrawn. The legislation would allow criminal suspects and people passing through Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China. Over time, the protesters added four more demands concerning the fate of those arrested in clashes with police and the state of Hong Kong’s democracy.

On Wednesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the bill would be officially withdrawn.

Beijing had made its decision. But it must have been difficult for the central government to acquiesce on a demand made by citizens, especially when the concession would prove street demonstrations to be effective.

Before Wednesday, mainland authorities had tried all manner of options to quell the protests. All proved to be ineffective. The unusual call to pull the extradition bill must have had its origin in Beidaihei and come at the request of the party elders.

Jiang Zemin, the 93-year-old former president, arrived at the conclave after attending the funeral of Li Peng, a former premier who died in July at the age of 90. Former President Hu Jintao as well as former premiers Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao also are thought to have been on hand for the seaside meeting, where resolving the Hong Kong unrest was a pressing issue.

Although Beijing has People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in Hong Kong — as well as the PAP forces lurking right across the border from Hong Kong — it would pay a high economic price if it were to send in the military.

This becomes less of an option when considering China’s economic growth is already losing steam due to the effects of the country’s trade war with the U.S. A military answer to Hong Kong would play into the hands of China’s rival hegemon.

The move taken by Xi’s administration this week was a piecemeal concession. Ahead of the big 70th anniversary celebration, it chose substance over appearance, even if it meant losing face.

Since June, when the first massive demonstration took place in Hong Kong, Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of Hong Kong, has visited Shenzhen multiple times to convey the central government’s wishes to Hong Kong leader Lam.

The chief executive gradually softened her stance on the controversial extradition bill. She initially said that she would indefinitely postpone the bill. She later declared the bill to be “dead.” Her remarks reflected the political winds in Beijing.

But the protests did not end. Each time, Lam had stopped short of withdrawing the bill. The clashes between protesters and police escalated. On some days, protesters affected operations at Hong Kong International Airport, resulting in flight cancellations.

It was against this backdrop that the “fire brigade chief” Wang Qishan headed south. It is unclear whether he met with Lam during his Guangdong stay. But he is seen to have conveyed Xi’s thoughts to the Hong Kong government.

The Beijing leadership believes it has taken a bold step. But some protesters have released a statement saying they will continue their fight. Others in the movement say they have no intention of backing down until all five demands are met. And many see the concession as too little too late.

The chasm between the officials of Beijing and the people of Hong Kong remains vast.

Xi has entrusted the Hong Kong issue to two political heavyweights. Vice Premier Han is one of seven Politburo Standing Committee members, and Wang carried out Xi’s unrelenting anti-corruption crackdown against political foes during Xi’s first term as president.

One would presume that with his core aides handling the matter, Xi has a thought-out game plan going forward. If Xi’s team has already played all its cards, it will face problems controlling the situation.

Hong Kong voters have long demanded universal suffrage. Currently, a 1,200-person committee of Hong Kong business executives and community leaders thought to be sympathetic to Beijing elect the chief executive, choosing from among three candidates essentially approved by Beijing.

Fresh from their first victory, it would not be a surprise if the protesters surmise they can win substantial concessions by pushing further.

The universal suffrage demand, which has remained unchanged since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, is something that should be put directly to the central government, which has ultimate authority in interpreting Hong Kong’s fundamental law.

But just like it does not want to play into the U.S.’s hands, the Xi administration also does not want to make a decision that could spark a “color revolution,” one which ripples out from Hong Kong and generates a mainland fervor to peacefully overthrow the government. As such, the policy of eliminating candidates who are not obedient to the central government appears unlikely to change.

Hong Kongers’ dissatisfaction has been directed at Lam and Hong Kong police. Lam has said she must serve “two masters,” the central government and Hong Kong citizens. So where do the players involved go from here? The protest movement has expanded to include a wider spectrum of Hong Kongers. Will their faceoff with Beijing’s proxy escalate into a hard landing? With three weeks remaining until Oct. 1, the situation remains terribly unpredictable.

By KATSUJI NAKAZAWA
Nikkei

1 COMMENT

  1. Hong Kong
    Despite the deluge of reporting on the HK riots I feel the underlying facts are not well explained. This is important for Singapore to reflect on for we are a twin of HK.

    1. The housing situation in HK is tragic and unnecessary.

    a) a great quantity of land is owned by developers and is zoned for agriculture. They would like to re-zone them as residential and build flats to sell but the zoning process is complicated by environmentalist groups, nature preservationists, and noise complaints by nearby residents. Many parties also concerned about possible falling house prices by too much new supply – developers, home owners and banks. Consequently, there are many combined interests aligned against rapid rezoning and development, and the consultative structure of the govt favours inaction over action.

    b) in the wake of HK riots of 1967 the British government sought to win the villagers in the New Territories over by granting each male the right to a 3 story 2100 sq ft house. The Small House Policy of 1972 or “Ding” right has been fiercely upheld by the village protectorate Heung Yee Kuk, which has also inserted itself in the HK Govt on all issues to do with development of the New Territories. Of the 3 regions of Hong Kong : Hong Kong Island has 80.5 sq km, Kowloon has 47 sq km and NT has 952.sq km. The Heung Yee Kuk and the structure of village self-governance below them have a large say over how 86% of the HK landmass is developed – everything from garbage collection to road access and dispute resolution. This state within a state is a legacy of the days when the New Territories was remote farmlands that the British left to self-govern. 50% of the HK population is squeezed into the remaining 14% of land.

    The “Ding” right is written into the Basic Law of HK. To amend Basic Law you need a 2/3 vote of the chamber.
    HK consequently is awash in farmland that the tourist and business person does not see, unless they tour the Shenzhen-HK border. In 1967 when Singapore faced the same issue, it passed the Land Acquisition Act to forcibly acquired 40% of the land mass for redevelopment into public housing. The short term anger and unhappiness it caused provided the foundation for the longer term stability we have today.

    2) economic prospects for Hong Kong have nots are in decline

    a) In HK, those who can afford it enroll in private international schools. These have great resources, attract native English or Mandarin speaking teachers and the student body is a mix of local and international. These schools produce the Hong Kongers who speak excellent English or Mandarin and are cosmopolitan.
    The public school system has a few strong schools, but by and large the language of instruction is Cantonese, and the level of Mandarin and English is poor. The graduates have a hard time getting jobs at international law and finance firms.

    Most HK citizens can look forward to exchanging the savings from a double income lifetime of toil for a miserly 450 sq ft of housing at 750,000 SGD. This is the limit of the HK dream for most and it breeds anger.

    3) the Legco is useless

    a) The Legco does not have the power to overturn vested interests in property. The Legco was designed to be broadly consultative : half of the 70 seats are elected to represent constituents and the other half represent various professions and interest groups. There is a representative for Accountants, for Catering, for Fisheries etc. There are 20 or more political parties, broadly pro-China or anti-China but they are distinct and work only in coalition. The Chief Executive can sign a bill but it needs a simple majority in the Legco to pass. In addition it needs the approval of the Executive Council, which is essentially a Beijing veto. Given this unwieldy structure and disorderly chamber, it is perhaps not surprising that the 1st and 2nd Chief Executive resigned early and the 3rd declined to contest a second term. It is a thankless job mired in powerless frustration.

    b) the Chief Executive has no incentive to consider what the people’s needs are
    the election of the Chief Executive is by a Committee of 1200, which are chosen from a broad spectrum of industries: the Accountants, Insurance, Traditional Chinese Medicine etc all send representatives. There are district representatives but they have about 10% of the seats.

    Beijing also has a veto for the candidate for Chief Executive. It is this Committee and Beijing that is the Chief Executive’s true constituency.

    4) the people of HK are divided

    a) the haves for the most part accept China’s sovereignty and work with China to participate in its economic growth. The Cantonese speaking only have-nots fear they are irrelevant in HK’s future and their government is deaf to their pleas – public rioting is the only way to be listened to. Both sides are correct and rational from their respective points of view. The haves see the have-nots as unrealistic in their demands of independence and the have-nots see the haves as uncaring elites. Again, both sides are correct.

    b) the 5 demands of the demonstrators are short term and contain no long term constructive prescriptions for HK. The demonstrations are a public expression of frustration.

    5) what has begun as dissatisfaction with economic prospects may morph from neglect
    The HK govt has wasted 2 decades since 1997 to fix the housing issue. And it has wasted the past 12 weeks to stop the demonstrators. From powerless and rudderless neglect by the HK govt, this movement may transform into a bona fide secessionist movement. Fighting for a greater cause has a strong human appeal, especially to the young. And being in a firefight is exciting : supporting your sports team is a simulacrum of that thrill. Tear gas and rubber bullets add to the frisson of your exploits. The natural unchecked momentum is to taunt the police more and to be more destructive not less. There are no constructive demands on the table, only a vent for pent up tension. If this morphing is to pass there can only be one response.

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